Spanish Texas —Part III

(Continued from last week)

In sixty years, the population of San Antonio de Béxar grew to around 1,700 people; only 400 of these were Spanish (loosely interpreted) with the rest being mestizos, Indians, and mulattos [1] (in Spanish, Culebras).  Mulattos outnumbered mestizos.  Over time, the word mestizo came to mean a Hispanicized Indian regardless of social origin, although the main distinction was in the language spoken and the way they dressed.

San Antonio 1820

San Antonio c. 1820

By the late 1700s, San Antonio de Béxar was an area of wretched shanties with only a few good buildings. Officially, the people of Spain’s northern-most frontier received little sympathy.  The Commandant General of the Interior reported that the settlers of Villa de San Fernando lived miserable lives because they were lazy, uneducated, and lacked professional skills.  There were no doctors or lawyers.

Spanish officials soon visited San Antonio de Béxar … which had become the capital of Spanish Texas.  Few of these inspectors had much good to say about it.  The average citizen lived a meager existence.  The people ate, but not well … which was the result of their apathy toward work and their sense of entitlement.  Modern historians claim fascination by the internal decay of Hispanic society, but for the life of me, I don’t understand why.  The situation as it existed in San Antonio in 1750 continues to exist in most Hispanic societies today, including parts of Mexicanized Texas, Mexico, and every Spanish-speaking country south of Mexico.  It also exists in modern-day Spain.  All these societies share clerically influenced societies, rigid caste systems, economic ineptitude, a determination by the elite to maintain their status at the expense of everyone else, and incompetent centrally-managed governments.

Texas in 1700 was not a contiguous province of New Spain and perhaps would never have been were it not for the threat of French encroachments that drove Spain into creating settlements on its northern frontier —settlements that were separated from Spain’s nearest civilized centers by several hundred miles through treacherous desert.  San Antonio was, indeed, an oasis … but even after Texas’ independence from Mexico, San Antonio de Béxar remained relatively unpopulated —even through the beginning of the 20th century.  In 1750, Spain’s northern colonies were significantly isolated from each other.  Culturally, the Spanish were ill-equipped to establish viable economies at these widely dispersed locations [2].

But there was a more important reason for Spain’s failure to hold Texas: the Spanish Empire committed suicide —a process that began when the Spanish introduced the horse into Apache culture (the Apachería) and through them, to the Comanche.  In so doing, Spain created the most fearsome light cavalry the world has ever known (See also: The Comanche).

The Spaniards never solved their Indian problem in Texas.  If anything, the difficulty grew worse over many years. Eventually, every Spanish settler from New Mexico to East Texas lived in stark fear for their lives from both the Apache and Comanche.  The Indians effectively stunted Spanish settlement as literally hundreds of colonists were killed in the north and thousands more along the fringes of Old Mexico. Indian war parties sortied as far south as Jalisco by the mid-18th century.  The number of horses and cattle stolen numbered in the hundreds of thousands —true even though by 1720 the Spanish had more armed men stationed in Texas than they had employed in the conquest of Mexico and Peru, which until Spain’s arrival, were empires containing tens of millions of natives.

Could the Spanish Crown admit that twenty or thirty thousand horsed Indians could shred the power of his Empire?  Of course not.  But it was not a matter of Spain being unaware of the likely effect of its policies. Far-seeing Spanish intellectuals provided the King with a clear warning: the frontier was not advancing, and in fact, it had already begun to recede.

In 1766, the Marqués de Rubí implored the Crown to accept the distinction between its mythical frontier and the stark reality.  As we have seen, the Presidio-Mission concept failed. The system could only be employed among subservient Indians —there were none of those in Texas — and rather than forging native people into a strong Hispanic base as full partners, they enslaved, tortured, and killed those who were best able to defend the land. Spain’s success in Mexico and Peru came as the result of its ability to conquer the dominant people, tribes of natives that had already subjugated all others.  After providing the Apache and Comanche with horses, there was no way that Spain could then suppress these dominant tribes.  In fact, the opposite was true: it gave them the greatest defeat ever suffered at the hands of Indians in the New World.

The Comanche made their presence known in San Antonio de Béxar soon after it was founded, but the first real trouble with hostiles came from the Apache, who were being systematically pushed off the plains by the more aggressive Comanche into the area of present-day Southern New Mexico, Arizona, and central and west Texas.  The Apache began hounding the Coahuiltecan tribes, which may have been their motivation for accepting life in Spanish missions.  In 1730, a large band of Lipan Apache attacked the settlement at San Antonio killing two soldiers, wounding thirteen others, and stealing sixty head of cattle.  The raid prompted Spain to organize a punitive expedition, which was their standard reaction to Indian raids.

Commandante Bustillo y Cevallos surprised an Indian camp west of San Antonio, likely along the San Sabá River (a branch of the Colorado).  The attack resulted in the death of many warriors, women and children.  Cevallos claimed that he killed two-hundred Indians, but Spanish officials regarded this as an exaggeration.  The expedition had no effect on the hostile Apache, however. A party of Lipan Apache subsequently appeared in San Antonio demanding to speak with the brown-robes (friars); they would have nothing to do with the soldiers.  What they wanted was a mission in their own country, in the area of the San Sabá River.  They claimed to want peaceful relations with the Spaniards.

Diego Ortiz de Parrilla 001

Colonel Diego Ortiz de Parrilla

The padres rejoiced and gave thanks to God; the soldiers rolled their eyes and advised caution. However, nothing could dampen the enthusiasm of these priests and, in a few years, Spanish authorities granted permission for the construction of a new Presidio and Mission in Apache country. It would be named San Luís de las Amarillas.  In April 1757, Colonel Diego Ortiz de Parrilla led his men and five priests from San Antonio and began construction of the new edifice in the heart of Apache country, known as the Apachería.  The mission was constructed of logs; it was surrounded by a palisade.  The Presidio was constructed a few miles away.  The Parrilla expedition had three tasks: (1) convert the Lipan Apache, thereby removing them as a threat to the safety of Spanish citizens; (2) extend Spanish power and influence into the region west of San Antonio, and (3) investigate claims of vast silver resources along the San Sabá River. Coronado was not the last man to believe in mythical treasures.

While the Apache had appeared meek enough in San Antonio, in their own country they were dismissive of Spanish soldiers and priests.  There was no time for conversion; it was the hunting season.  After hunting season, there were other excuses —and yet the padres persisted. But something was amiss: The Apache seemed fidgety, and the Spanish couldn’t figure out why.

In fact, the Apache did have something up their sleeve.  Having been mauled by the Cevallos expedition and shredded by the terrible force of Comanche in the north, the Apache intended to set both enemies upon each other.  They had not only lured the Spanish into the Apachería, but also beyond the border of Comanche country, the Comanchería.  The Apache eagerly awaited the Comanche reaction to the presence of these foreigners.

The Presidio-Mission had only been finished for a few months when a friendly Indian brought word to the padres of a terrible calamity in the offing. Anxious, the Spanish sent word to the entire frontier, warning everyone of impending Indian attacks —but nothing happened.  Summer and fall passed without incident; everyone relaxed.  It must have been a false rumor.  These things happened on the great plain.  Winter passed, and with the approach of spring, the grass turned green and lush.  It was a perfect environment to forage thousands of horses on the great plain.  It was early March 1758.  The night brought a full moon and no one in the garrison had ever seen such nocturnal beauty.  This was a period known as the Comanche Moon —a time when large parties of mounted Comanche could ride at night, unseen by anyone for a thousand miles.

Then, quite suddenly, every Lipan Apache in the area disappeared.  No one saw an Indian for days, until one morning a rush of horsemen swooped down upon the Presidio.  Sixty head of horse were abruptly gone from the Spanish pasture.  Parrilla put all his men on the walls; he dispatched a messenger asking that the padres join him at once.  They refused.  After a few days, when nothing else happened, Parrilla went to the mission and argued with the priests.  They must, for their own safety, move to the Presidio.  The senior priest, Father Terreros finally agreed to join Parrilla the next day even though it was unlikely that “invisible Indians” would wish to do the padres any harm.   Colonel Parrilla detailed seventeen soldiers to remain with the priests and provide them with protective escort the next day.

The Comanche attacked the next morning during mass.  Soldiers ran to the parapet to take up firing positions; Father Terreros and Father Molina followed them.  What they observed was around 2,000 Comanche horsemen surrounding the mission.  Molina was terribly frightened and said as much, but Terreros insisted that these men must be friendly as no Spaniard had done them any harm.  The soldiers awaited the priest’s order to fire, but Terreros would not or could not command it.

Comanche Warrior 001

The Comanche attacked the next morning during mass.

The Comanche warriors were wearing war paint of black and red; they wore headgear of buffalo horn, deer antlers, and eagle’s plumes. All were armed with lances and bows; five score carried French made muskets.  One Comanche dismounted and walked to the mission’s main entrance. He pushed against the doorway and found it open.  Terreros hesitated, but the Indian did not.  He shoved the door open and quite suddenly, the mission was filled with Comanche Indians.  In sign language, the Comanche ordered the priest to send a message to Colonel Parrilla telling him to open his Presidio to the Comanche.  A large party of Indians took the hand-written message and rode off.  Meanwhile, another Indian, someone other than a Comanche, had fled to the Presidio to inform Parrilla of these events.  The colonel immediately ordered a detachment of troops to reinforce the mission. These men mounted and rode off —directly into the war party coming from the mission with Toreros’ message.  The Spanish cavalry never had a chance.  In mere seconds, every soldier was killed, save one, who, though badly wounded was able to crawl away.  The hostiles scalped every dead Spaniard.

At the mission, the Indians had no interest in the offer of gifts; they would take what they wanted.  As the looting started, Spanish priests gathered in the center of the enclosure —but not for long.  Spanish troops inside the mission were the first to die.  One priest was lanced and then decapitated.  Several Comanche grabbed Terreros and carried him off with the intent of torturing him, but a Comanche arrow pierced his skull and he died instantly. Molina was able to break away and together with a few others, hide inside one of the sleeping rooms.  They remained there for several hours.  When the looting and killing was done, the Comanche set fire to the mission and departed as quickly as they had arrived. Molina was saved by the fact that the mission was constructed of green wood; it would not burn.  After dark, the wounded Molina led a handful of survivors to the Presidio.

Three days later, after Colonel Parrilla’s scouts reported that the Comanche horde had left the area, Parrilla and Molina returned to San Sabá where they gave Terreros and others a Christian burial.  Afterwards, Parrilla gathered his force and withdrew to San Luís and asked for reinforcements.

The destruction of San Sabá caused consternation and rage at San Antonio de Béxar.  Spanish and ecclesiastical authorities strongly believed that the desecration of the mission and murder of priests should not go unpunished, but nothing was done. After the San Sabá presidio was raided again in 1758, Spanish officials called a conference at San Antonio.  This time, they were serious: they planned an expedition.  All call went out to all other presidios in Texas for soldier reinforcements.  A large number of friendly Indians were raised to augment the military.  The Viceroy eventually approved the plan.

In August 1759, Colonel Parrilla led six-hundred men with orders to sweep the Indian country north of Béxar.  About a third of his force were Lipan Apache.  He carried two field artillery guns and a supply train to sustain his force for an extended period.  It was the greatest Spanish military expedition ever mounted in Texas. Colonel Parrilla commanded more men than Coronado and Pizarro combined, but he would not march his men into the heart of Comanche country.  To do so would have placed his force at the mercy of a superior mounted force.  He instead skirted the Comanchería.  He never met any of the Comanche, but he did locate a Tonkawa village.  At this point, one of two things must become apparent: either the Spanish were intent upon revenge for the death of Father Terreros, or Parrilla didn’t know one Indian from another.  Parrilla attacked the Tonkawa village, killed 55 Indian men and seized more than 150 women and children.  These he ordered marched to San Antonio.

In October 1759, Parrilla approached the Red River, the northernmost boundary of Texas.  Here he found more hostiles: Comanche, Wichita, and several others.  At the moment he ordered his attack, the Lipan Apache deserted and ran for their lives.  Colonel Parrilla fought his way out of an encirclement, and while his losses were comparatively small (discounting the Indians who ran away), he lost both of his field cannon and the supply train.  It was the worst defeat by the Spanish military in the New World [3].

Within a few weeks, Colonel Parrilla reappeared at Béxar.  Spanish casualties aside, Spanish power was dealt an enormous psychological blow.  In Mexico City, Colonel Parrilla faced a court-martial [4].  Twenty years later, a French agent working on behalf of the Spanish Viceroy recovered Parrilla’s cannon.  Never again did the Spanish authorize a church mission for hostile tribes in the Texas interior.  Never again did Spain mount a serious campaign against the Comanche.

Colonel Parrilla’s campaign marked an important shift in the balance of power in Texas.  From 1759 onward, the Spanish adopted a defensive strategy when it came to hostile Indians.  Lipan Apache continued to terrorize frontier communities, the Comanche began to raid and plunder deep inside Mexico, and the Spanish presidios became targets of opportunity and sources of great entertainment for the plains Indian. Spanish soldiers wisely refused to pursue attacking war parties.

The Spanish had established several missions and settlements in East Texas near the Louisiana border, a few crumbling missions and forts along the south Texas crescent, and, of course, inside the Texas capital at San Antonio de Béxar.  Outside of these efforts, the Spanish expressed no further interest in settling Texas until 1820, when they opened the land to Anglo-American settlement.

What the Texas Indians learned from the Spanish was how easy it was to defeat them; from the Texians (Anglo settlers), the hostiles learned about death and pain.  After the Anglo-Americans arrived in Texas, hostile Indians no longer enjoyed the privilege of sanctuary.  It was true that the Indians could ride far and fast; true that they were lethal instruments of terror on the plains, but it is equally true that they met their match in the men and women who became Texans.

Mission San Antonio de Valero (at San Antonio de Béxar) was secularized in 1793.  After 75-years of effort, there were but 43-settled converts to Christianity —and none in any of the remaining missions.  In 1800, the total population of Spanish Texas was less than 3,000 souls (including Indians and garrison troops).  After three-quarters of a century, after the death and suffering of thousands of men and women on the Spanish-Mexican frontier, after losses of tens of thousands of cattle and horses during unrelenting warfare, the small number of people remaining in San Antonio cursed the Church and Crown with equal vigor.

(Continued next week)


  1. Burkholder, M. A.Spanish Empire, Encyclopedia of Latin-American History and Culture, 1996
  2. Thomas, H. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, Columbus to Magellan, New York: Random House, 2003
  3. Maltby, W. The Rise and Fall of the Spanish Empire, London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2009
  4. Valencia-Himmerich, R. and Joseph P. Sanchez. The Encomiendas of New Spain, 1521-1555: Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991
  5. McKendrick, M. Spain: A History, New York: Horizon Books, Electronic Edition
  6. Phillips, Jr., W. D., and Carla R. Phillips. A Concise History of Spain (Second Edition): Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 2016
  7. Fehrenbach, T. R. Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans from Prehistory to the Present: Austin, Da Pao Press, 1968, 2000
  8. Liss, P. K.Mexico Under Spain: Society and the Origins of Nationality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975


[1] The definition of a mulatto is someone with one white and one black parent.  Since there were no Negroes on the Texas frontier, the term Culebra more than likely describes someone with a white parent and one who is non-white classification.  This is an illustration of the complexity of the Spanish system of social classification.

[2] Modern historians point to the fact that only a forest-farm oriented race could have nurtured the thickets and hills of Texas.  The Spanish were a Mediterranean race who thought in terms of colonial centers constructed in the Roman pattern —none of which were ever economically viable.

[3] Colonel Parrilla reported that he fought 6,000 warriors who presented themselves under a French flag; he opined that French military officers likely commanded them. Historians discount Parrilla’s claim; there may have been French agents among the Indians, but there was no evidence produced by Parrilla of a French military operation, nor has there ever been any evidence of a direct participation in the Indian alliance by the French.  Historians claim that it is more likely that Parrilla exaggerated the numbers of Indians to place his defeat in a better light.  Defeat at the hands of other European armies was one thing; defeat by savages quite another.

[4] Colonel Parrilla’s court-martial didn’t terminate his career.  A few years later Parrilla achieved the rank of Brigadier with a post of some distinction in his native Spain.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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